Sorry for the two-week intermission! With my food critic out of town two weekends ago and then her returning last weekend and us spending time catching up, I couldn’t justify trying to fit a bake in. Not to despair, however. I’m back this week with French loaves.
I had originally planned on some ciabatta loaves but reading through some recipes made it sound like it was really ideal to have a powered dough mixer of some sort. While the ideal is what we strive for here, but
rarely never achieve, I felt that with my level of experience and knowledge of baking (read: none), my chances for success were already pretty scant with such a recipe, even with all the suggested tools.
As such, moving a touch NW on the Europe food map leaves us with French loaves instead of those tasty Italian ones. Here’s the recipe, courtesy Taste of Home (Originally published as French Loaves in Taste of Home February/March 2010, p38):
2 tsp active dry yeast 2 tsp salt 1 tsp sugar 1 tsp cornmeal 4 1/2 - 5 cups bread flour 2 cups warm water (100-115°f) Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add salt, sugar, 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough flour to create a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface, knead 6-8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning to grease all exposed dough. Cover, let rise for an hour. Punch dough down, turn onto a lightly floured surface. Divide in half, form into 12" long loaves. Preheat oven to 450° Place seam down on a baking sheet. Cover, let rise until double (30 mins). Sprinkle with cornmeal, make four shallow slashes across top. Bake 15-20 mins until golden brown.
While I’m sure some cliche such as “What you don’t know, you don’t know” or “Ignorance is bliss” may certainly apply here, bread making seems to me the most difficult type of food to bake. I think it has something to do with the entire yeast process. From mixing the ingredients to working the dough to letting it rest, I just don’t know what to expect as at any point along the journey; and because I don’t know what to expect or what may happen as a result, it just feels like I’m flying completely blind with little recourse for reflection.
While I’m nervous to bake these loaves, at least the chances for an equally hilarious story are inversely related to how successful I am.
With the relatively few ingredients and quick proving time, I feel this is a great first step into the world of hand-made bread baking.
So I’m not even as far as the third step and I don’t know what the actual fuck this means:
Stir in enough flour to create a soft dough.
I mean, is this the remaining 2 1/2 to 3 cups? Is it 1 cup? A metric yard? Also, the yeast mixture smells like the cleaning agent Bartender’s Friend. Ugh.
So. yeah. How much more flour to add? I exclaim my confusion, really to no one in particular, but Nadia overhears and laughs, mentioning “This is going to be fun because even I don’t know what that means.” Ah, shit.
A soft dough. Ok. I’ll add 1/4 of a cup of flour at a time to hopefully get to where it’s supposed to be, ’cause right now, it’s straight soup. This is hitting exactly on my aforementioned troubles with baking. I simply have no idea what I’m looking for. It’s like asking a dog to prove if they think Hamlet is truly crazy or just puts on a great ruse by finding the acts and scenes in the play which support their arguments most. They simply can’t understand this, much less conceptualize it. That’s about where I’m at with identifying what the dough should resemble at various stages of the prep/bake.
1/4 cup… Another 1/4 mixed in. Here’s another 1/4… One more. Ok, I’m up to 1 additional cup added. It’s starting to be reminiscent of a dough-like substance, but it’s still way too runny to be a “soft dough.” Time to add more.
At the same time, I’m wondering if I’m overworking this mixture already by adding 1/4 cup at a time, mixing it, adding another…
… GOD DAMNIT. I just realized I used all-purpose flour and not bread flour. Mother fuck. I’m, like, 30 minutes into this process so you know I’m not turning this car around. Nadia confirmed that bread made with all-purpose flour and not bread flour tends to not rise as well and have some different textural issues but (there’s a BUT!) either can be substituted for the other. Oh! I’ve only added 3 3/4 cups of flour until this point. The original recipe says 4 1/2 to 5, so I’ve only now just formed the brilliant idea to use bread flour for the remaining flour I add to you know, try to salvage it?
I add another 3/4 cup bread flour all at once to get to 4 1/2 cups of flour total and now I have a sinking feeling I shouldn’t have added these last few scoops all at once. As usual, my impatience gets the best of me. At this point, there’s naught else to do but mix it all together and assume everything works in the end like everything always does. Well, everything ends at least- occasionally the way you want, occasionally not.
It kinda looks a dough, I guess. I take it out of the bowl and start to “turn” (knead?) the dough. This part still confuses me- I have no idea how much flour to use to coat my surface and/or how much more to continue to add through the process.
As it is, I only use enough to cover my surface, but only a minute into the six minutes instructed, I have half of my dough sticking to my hands and am once again resorting to the scoop and smash method previously seen my cinnamon rolls attempt. After five minutes of this nonsense, I arbitrarily decide the dough has been smashed enough and to move it into a bowl for proving.
[one hour passes]
Alright, ye ole’ dough is risen! I punch the shit out of it, per the recipe instructions (contrary to what I would have thought to do), plop it onto the floured surface, and get it shaped into your common French loaf. I can’t believe my eyes- it actually resembles what I believe unbaked French bread to looks like. I leave the dough alone for another 30 minute prove.
[one-half of one hour passes]
Let’s get these beasts in the oven and see what golden treasures await.
[13 minutes pass]
It smells fantastic. My hopes and expectations are stupidly being set higher.
[four more minutes pass]
They pretty much look the part and certainly smell the part. I’m utterly shocked at that these have potentially turned out as well as two of my senses have confirmed. I can only hope they taste as good as they appear and smell.
- On a Mac, option + shift + 8 creates the “degrees” symbol (°)
- Once activated, yeast smells like cleaning product
- Continually softly add flour to hands and/or surface to prevent dough-hands
- Everything always works out
Appearance: 7/10 Cakies, “Looked like the right size, though a little misshapen. A little pale, but looked like French bread to me.”
Appeal: 9/10 Cakies, “Smelled really, really, good. It looked decent, and I love bread, so I wanted to eat it very badly.”
Taste: 6/10 Cakies, “For texture reasons, potentially due to the all-purpose flour? It didn’t have the stretch I expect French bread to and it was slightly cake-y which was unexpected.”
Overall: 8/10 Cakies, “Yeah, it’s one of your better bakes, especially because there wasn’t too much salt and it wasn’t raw in the middle.”
Best part: “The crust was really good- the perfect amount of crispy and chewy”
Worst part: “The very middle was the most cake-y.”
I’m quite pleased with the result of these French loaves. For just kind of winging it through the kneading phase, it came together pretty well.
I think I understand some of the kneading process better, at least to the point where I can confirm that Hamlet was just putting on a crazy show and wasn’t actually crazy, though I’m not yet to the point where I can point out my evidence.